Regarding Hiroki Kuroda, and with apologies to Winston Churchill, never before have so many written so much about a pitcher whose accomplishments are so few. As the offseason has dragged on without a big move by the Yankees, fans of the team have grown increasingly impatient, and Kuroda has become their cause célèbre.
In his brief four-year career, Kuroda has been a solid starter, posting a cumulative WAR of 8.6 and ERA+ of 114. However, the Dodgers’ right hander will be 37 next year, so, even if his transition from the N.L. West wasn’t already a concern, the risks associated with his age would be reason enough for pause. Of course, that doesn’t mean Kuroda wouldn’t represent an upgrade in the Yankees’ shaky rotation, but at the reported cost of $12 million (not to mention the corresponding luxury tax hit of roughly $5 million), it’s hard to argue that the marginal value would justify the additional expenditure.
Back in the winter of 1984, the Yankees were in a similar situation. Despite having a top offensive team, which was bolstered by the earlier addition of Rickey Henderson, the pitching staff was a jumble of question marks (and there wasn’t a CC Sabathia to serve as an anchor). As luck would have it, however, there was pitcher from the N.L. West available on the free agent market. His name was Ed Whitson.
The Yankees officially signed Whitson on December 27, 1984. In order to win his services, the team had to outbid the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves, and the courtship efforts included a personal visit from the Boss himself. Although Whitson stated he was impressed by Steinbrenner’s sincerity, what ultimately swayed his decision was the $4.5 million guaranteed over five years. Off the bat, Whitson made that clear, which in retrospect, was probably the first sign that his time in New York would not go as planned.
The number one thing was the security of my family. Baseball is second. It’s a game. It’s something I enjoy doing.” – Ed Whitson, quoted by AP December 28, 1984
In retrospect, there shouldn’t have been such great expectations for Whitson. In his breakout season the year before, his ERA+ was only 111, WAR only 2.6, and he struck out a mere 103 batters in 189 innings. However, this was 1984, so what stood out was his 14-8 record with a 3.24 ERA. As a result, the former Padres’ righty was viewed as a big addition. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take long for that perception to change
Ed Whitson underwent a baptism by fire with the Yankees. His first start was a 14-5 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park, after which it was revealed that he suffered from back spasms earlier in the week. Whitson downplayed the injury after letting the cat out of the bag, but either way, Steinbrenner wasn’t exactly in a forgiving move. Just two days into the season, the Yankees’ owner proclaimed, “I’d have to say our pitching stinks. They know they stink”. Welcome to the Bronx.
I felt tired, weak. I wasn’t going all the way through with my pitches. I was standing up when I released the ball. I guess I was compensating for my back.” – Ed Whitson, quoted by AP, April 13, 1985
As the season went on, things didn’t get much better for Whitson. During one particularly difficult stretch in May, the right hander went 0-3 with an 8.87 ERA in six starts. Needless to say, boos started reigning down at Yankee Stadium, but soon the cat calls would become the least of the ways in which the fans voiced their displeasure. On May 28, a “mob” reportedly chased Whitson out of the Yankee Stadium parking lot, and they weren’t seeking an autograph. Meanwhile, those less inclined to actually inflict physical violence relied on the U.S. Mail to get their point across. In a few short months, Whitson’s introductory comments about enjoying the game and providing security for his family seemed like a perverse form of ironic foreshadowing.
A lot of times I read the fan mail. If I feel good, I read it; if not, I don’t. I used to check it for ticking.” – Ed Whitson, quoted by the Record-Journal, June 27, 1985
During the summer, Whitson had a couple of solid stretches, and at one point actually improved his record to over .500. However, during the heat of the pennant race, the lid was blown off his disappointing season. Although the Yankees won a remarkable nine of his last 10 starts, Whitson could only muster 50 innings pitched to a 6.84 ERA. Unfortunately for the righty, the team’s success did little to disguise his failure or lessen the fans’ or his own frustration.
Ed Whitson’s season from hell came to head in a bar in Baltimore during a series in which his turn in the rotation had been skipped. On September 22, following a 5-4 victory against the Orioles, Whitson sat in the hotel bar stewing over his demotion when he confronted a fan he felt was paying to close attention to his conversation. According to most initial accounts of the fight, Billy Martin, who also happened to be in the bar, attempted to short circuit the altercation, but instead became involved in a brawl that continued in the hotel lobby and parking lot. By the time it was over, Martin had suffered a broken arm (later, it was revealed he also suffered two cracked ribs and an injured lung), while Whitson added a cut lip to his already bruised ego.
I wasn’t trying to fight, I was trying to break up a fight. If I was fighting, he would have been knocked out from the beginning.” – Billy Martin, quoted by AP, September 23, 1985
The Yankees didn’t suspend Whitson for the brawl, but Martin did one better. Days after the fight, the fiery manager announced to the press that Whitson would skip his start at Yankee Stadium to avoid being booed by the fans. Whether it was an uncharacteristic display of compassion or an attempt to embarrass the right hander, the move summed up Whitson’s first season in pinstripes.
After the season was over, Whitson requested a trade, but not surprisingly, the Yankees couldn’t find a taker for his hefty contract. Instead, it was Martin who was sent packing. Despite the change, Whitson was still anxious to escape from the Bronx. During the spring of 1986, the embattled right hander opened up about the extent to which he and his family were harassed during the previous season. Clearly, Whitson did little to distinguish himself in 1985, but sadly, many Yankees’ fans came away looking even worse.
It’s got nothing to do with the Yankee organization or the Yankee coaching staff. I’ve never had words with George Steinbrenner. The whole issue is my family’s safety.” – Ed Whitson, quoted by the New York Times, March 17, 1986
In Whitson’s first start of the 1986 season, he couldn’t make it past the third inning against the Royals and left the Yankee Stadium mound to a familiar chorus of boos. Following the disastrous outing, Piniella decided that Whitson would only start games on the road and be relegated to the bullpen when the team played at home. Because of the schedule, the Yankees soon had to abandon that plan, but then the situation became even more absurd when Whitson’s home start against the Indians was skipped because the pitcher was suffering from a bout of diarrhea. Whitson eventually returned to the Stadium mound during that series, and received a standing ovation from the crowd when he jogged in from the bullpen, but the era of good feelings was short lived.
Whitson’s scoreless inning of relief was the highpoint of the season. Over the next two months, which included a stint on the DL with sore ribs (probably not from too much laughing), he posted an ERA of 8.31 over 22 innings, most of which came in relief (his final two starts lasted a combined two innings). Now being called a “head case” on a regular basis, Whitson continued to shrink further into his shell.
I’ve run a lot of businesses and I’ve never seen one like him. You need to be a psychologist, a babysitter and a businessman all roled into one. We’re through babying him”. – George Steinbrenner, quoted by the New York Daily News, June 19, 1986
Ed Whitson’s misery finally came to an end on July 9, 1986, when the Yankees agreed to send him back to San Diego in exchange for reliever Tim Stoddard. Elated to be freed from the Bronx, Whitson took the high road out of town, praising Steinbrenner and even complementing the fans.
They’ve got some outstanding fans there, that’s for sure, and I wish them all the best of luck, the Yankees and George Steinbrenner. I’ve got to thank him because he really did what he said he would do with the contract and getting me out of there if I didn’t like it. He fulfilled it. I can’t say enough about him. He never ripped me and he had plenty of chances, I guess. Until the day I die, I’ll respect him” – Ed Whitson, quoted by the New York Times, July 9, 1986
Sadly for Whitson, things didn’t immediately improve that much in San Diego. During a rocky first inning in his first start back with the Padres, the fans began to boo. The negative reaction wasn’t as vocal or venomous as in the Bronx, but it probably wasn’t the homecoming Whitson expected. Eventually, Whitson would regain his footing in San Diego, and actually rebound to have two excellent seasons in 1989 and 1990, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the poster boy for free agent busts, not to mention the first name cited when discussing whether a player can “handle New York”.
Hiroki Kuroda isn’t Ed Whitson. However, there is one parallel. Sometimes, it’s better to not get the “best pitcher remaining on the market”, especially when there are doubts about how well he’ll perform in the Bronx. Kuroda very well could end up doing just fine if he dons the pinstripes, but then again, the Yankees might be better off not finding out.